Marylander Thomas Perez, an assistant U.S. attorney general, has been tapped to serve as President Obama’s next Secretary of Labor.

“Thank you, Mr. President, for your confidence in me,” Perez said at the March 18 announcement in the East Room of the White House.

“Over my career, I’ve learned that true progress is possible if you keep an open mind, listen to all sides, and focus on results,” Perez said. “I look forward to taking these lessons with me, if confirmed, to my new role as Secretary of the Department of Labor.”

Perez’ reputation as a “consensus-builder” on tough issues made him a top choice to handle the challenges of creating jobs, equipping Americans to serve in those jobs and ensuring that they are earning a fair wage for their labor, Obama said.

“He’s worked with CEOs, he’s worked with labor leaders,” Obama said. “He’s worked at federal, state, and local government levels. And throughout, he understands that our economy works best when the middle class and those working to get into the middle class have the security they need on the job, a democratic voice in the workplace, everybody playing by the same set of rules.”

Perez rose from humble beginnings. The son of Dominican immigrants, he paid his way through college by working as a garbage collector and warehouse worker to eventually head the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. In that capacity, he helped settle cases for families targeted by predatory mortgage lenders, facilitated pathways to employment for the disabled, immigrants and LGBT Americans and increased enforcement of human trafficking laws.

Before joining the Justice Department, Perez worked as a civil rights attorney, an aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy, a member of the Montgomery County Council and as Secretary of Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation, where he helped implement the country’s first statewide living-wage law.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’ Malley praised Obama for the nomination and said Perez had been a “valuable and outstanding” member of his cabinet.

“Under his leadership in Maryland, he worked diligently to find innovative ways to protect our State’s workforce in the toughest of times,” O’Malley said in a statement. “From foreclosure prevention to living wage implementation to workforce development and skills training, Tom established an aggressive portfolio that helped Marylanders weather a changing new economy.
“I am confident that he will serve the American people well as the nation’s economy continues a strong recovery.”

Capitol Hill Republicans questioned Obama’s choice, however, saying Perez is a polarizing figure.

“This is an unfortunate and needlessly divisive nomination,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a senior member of the Senate Judiciary committee, said in a statement. The nominee has “had a controversial tenure at the Department of Justice where he has demonstrated a fundamentally political approach to the law.”

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) also signalled his intention to block Perez’s nomination, citing DOJ’s decision to sue Louisiana for not providing voting-registration services to low-income residents.

“Perez was greatly involved in the DOJ’s partisan full court press to pressure Louisiana’s Secretary of State to only enforce one side of the law – the side that specifically benefits the politics of the president and his administration at the expense of identity security of each and every Louisianian on the voter rolls,” he said in a statement.

Perez’ Republican detractors are pointing to a 258-page inspector general’s report released last week that depicts a Voting Rights Section mired in an “polarization and distrust” that has hampered the department’s proficiency, though the report makes it clear that the highly politicized atmosphere has thrived over several administrations.

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Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO